by Crystal Cockman
September 7, 2017
A couple of weeks ago, I took a trip with the Friends of Plant Conservation on the Black River near Wilmington. The Black River is home to the oldest trees east of the Rocky Mountains. These are bald cypress trees, which are known to grow to a very old age. Bald cypress trees have a unique feature known as knees, which are portions of the tree that grow away from the trunk and stick up out of the water, which are believed to be important for the structural integrity of the tree to hold it up, and also important in gas exchange.
University of Arkansas professor David Stahle discovered the Black River trees by accident in the 1980s. He was studying old growth tree rings and climate and found the trees on the Black River. Many are more than 500 years old. The oldest identified tree, scientifically labeled BLK69 and locally known as Methuselah, dates back to 364 AD. There are probably other trees that are even older, but core rot prevents them from being able to be aged. There could easily be trees that are more than 2000 years old. Some of the trees are more than 8 feet across.
David Stahle spoke after we got done with our trip on the river, and posed the question of why these trees weren’t cut years ago. The red cypress trees in other areas were cut down. He said that yellow cypress trees have more dry rot. It is hard to log the stands dominated by old trees, and it costs so much to harvest it, it isn’t worth the effort.
The Black River flows through Sampson, Pender and Bladen counties before emptying in the Cape Fear. The Black River is known for its meanders, oxbows, artesian springs and mature swamp forests. The river is so named for it’s stained dark tea color, which comes from the tannins of decaying vegetation in the river. In 1994 the Black River was named a North Carolina outstanding resource water, the highest water quality designation given in the state.
The Nature Conservancy has worked with partners to protect more than 14,000 acres in the Black River watershed, including the area known as the Three Sisters, the site where the oldest known stands of bald cypress have been found.
Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill in July of this year that could lead to creation of a new state park along the Black River. The legislation adds three natural areas to the state park system – Bob’s Creek in McDowell County, Warwick Mill Bay in Robeson County and Salmon Creek in Bertie County. The bill directs the parks division to study the feasibility of acquiring land on the Black River to create a new state park.
We didn’t make it up the river far enough to see the oldest bald cypress trees – that would require a kayak or canoe. We did see several osprey nests and at least three alligators (which makes me think twice about paddling). Dr. Stahle did mention another place where you can go to see old-growth bald cypress, and walk on a boardwalk amongst them – the Francis Beidler Forest in South Carolina. It’s an Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary in Four Holes Swamp. It contains over 16,000 acres with approximately 1,800 acres of old-growth forest. It is the largest virgin stand of these trees in the world. Some of the trees are more than 1,000 years old. It has an environmental education center and a 1.75-mile boardwalk through the old-growth portion of the swamp. It’s another location I hope to visit soon.